2. Abort the baby and start chemo after… I must make you aware that chemo might make you infertile
3. Delay treatment until after it’s born.”
(Matilda Tristram, February Colonomic)
How does Matilda Tristram face these choices? With a black felt pen.
Colonomic is “an ongoing comic about it all.” As an 18-month pregnant woman, she was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon Cancer in February. With a passion for sketching and writing, Tristram has turned to comics as a means of communicating with loved ones about how she was doing.
The black and white nature of her comics gives them a sense of precision, and her concise use of language leaves a reader valuing the impact of each word. The simplicity of her sketches sharpens them, and she distills each image to its core. Her authenticity and honesty is exposed by her unaltered writing and drawing, which preserves her presence within this work of art. Unsettled emotions of frustration surface, but so to does gratitude for the simple pleasures. Some moments are comical, others more tragic.
The name Colonomic melds together the bodily organ with a form of art in a way that piques your interest, and exemplifies that these distinct realms may in fact be connected. This comic establishes an incredible connection between the work of literature and art.
One thing I thought was interesting was that after watching Matilda’s story: A matter of life and death, the caption didn’t quite seem to fit. The caption claims that “she has created a comic book that details the difficult decisions that came next: whether to undergo chemotherapy and whether to keep the baby” (Guardian). But Colonomic pushes against these decisions, drawing upon so many more of Matilda’s unique experiences.
Sometimes the tendency to wear your heart on your sleeve, to openly express your emotions, can be suffocated by the medical profession. But wearing your heart on your back is becoming increasingly appreciated.
The Walking Gallery is “the Gallery that walks. The Patients that wear our stories on our back” (Holliday).
Image courtesy of Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons license: BY-SA.
It’s this revolutionary idea that art can provide a window into the patient experience, one that can be displayed by the clothes on a person’s back. This offers mobility to art, a method of transportation that escapes the confinements of wall hangings and pervades into inevitable lines of vision. This increased accessibility allows “patients,” as embodied by this artwork, to enter into places and discussions that they have never before been a part of. Now, patient experiences can be visible and actively remembered in the decision spaces that often influence but do not include patients.
Image courtesy of Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons license: BY-SA.
The work of Regina Holliday, the artist who brought this exhibit of sorts to life, is inspirational. She not only has a way with art, but also a way with language: her overwhelmingly powerful talk at Stanford incredibly moved me, and she has piqued my interest in exploring the place of art in medicine. Holliday is one of the first artists that I’ve come across in the field of patient advocacy, and her creations have gathered incredible force for this movement.
What I love about the Walking Gallery is that it takes a step forward to putting a story to the patient experience. These jackets and the images that they bear evoke emotions buried within medicine. And The Walking Gallery is not limited to patients: physicians, policy makers, and others associated with health care all have stories to share. Despite the distinct roles in medicine, art overcomes these boundaries with brushstrokes and splashes of color. We can wear our experiences, the good and the bad and the in-between, the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and trials. Boldly.
Mid-July in Ann Arbor means heat, humidity and sun, with a splash of sporadic thunderstorms. But it also means Art Fair, 4 days of celebrating and supporting the work of artists from around the nation.
In honor of the Ann Arbor Art Fair, I will be posting daily this week about art as an illness narrative. I love to think about how the practice of medicine is both a science and an art, and I stumbled upon this interesting article called Medicine: Science or Art? which teases out this idea.
“Medicine is both an art and a science. Both are interdependent and inseparable, just like two sides of a coin. The importance of the art of medicine is because we have to deal with a human being, his or her body, mind and soul. To be a good medical practitioner, one has to become a good artist with sufficient scientific knowledge. Technology covered with the layer of art alone can bring relief to the sick” (S.C. Panda 2006).
In honor of Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday today, Google chose to illustrate one of Kafka’s most canonical works: The Metamorphosis. This classic novella was one of the first illness narratives that I read, telling the symbolic tale of the salesman Gregor whose illness transforms him into a “monstrous verminous bug” (1).
It’s interesting what a different feel this image has. The drab colors reflect the simplistic tone in the book. But the sense of entrapment and isolation conveyed in Kafka’s work is inverted here by a mobile insect in control of his limbs. And the apple, a weapon that injures Gregor, becomes raised on the pedestal-like letter L. There is no sense of the pain and torment that Gregor experiences from the illness in the novella.
This doodle has me thinking about images and their effects on literature. Since I saw this image after reading the book, it was a bit unsettling for me. But if I had seen this image prior, perhaps I would have left the text with a different sentiment. I wonder how book covers of illness narratives may sway perceptions of illness.
Which got me thinking about Body Worlds. The plastination of bodies are transformed to sculptures of art.
Art is deeply intertwined in our understanding of the human body, from a cellular level to a physiological level to an anatomical level and beyond. It’s interesting to consider these three perspectives on the art of medicine because they illuminate the fact that this concept and this initiative is entirely natural.
But at the same time, exhibits like Body Worlds have raised ethical concerns about artistically displaying a body. Although plastination originated with educational intentions, the body has become commodified and manipulated. Is there somewhere we should draw the line between art and medicine?
After attending the Tell Me A Story Symposium last week that highlighted the powerful place of illustrations in storytelling, I was able to take a step back and approach David Small’s graphic novel Stitches with a more open mind. In this memoir, Small takes the reader leaping from memory to memory. He introduces his nuclear family, which consists of an overbearing to the point of violent father, a stern but silent mother, and a drumming brother. From the story’s beginning at six years of age, there is something off about Small, and his father aims to rectify his son’s character. Small recalls spending time with his abusive grandmother and the traumatizing experiences he endured both physically and mentally. Flash forward: eleven years of age. Small’s growth is discovered, but the family responds in denial and neglect. His mother initially fears the doctor’s bills more than the growth itself, and the doctor’s reassurance that it is no cause for alarm allows it to fall lower and lower on the family’s priorities. Finally, Small has not one but two surgeries; while he entered the hospital with a additional growth on his neck, he emerges with a vacancy of vocal cords replaced by nothing but stitches. Confused, Small eventually discovers that his condition had a name: cancer. His parents had chosen to keep the identity of his illness confidential from him.
Although Small’s stitches may remain in tact, his wounds reside much deeper than the surface of the skin. His life begins to unravel until a therapist, the white rabbit, opens up a space for communication that provides him with relief and allows him to address the inherent tensions with his family. As Small improves mentally, these tensions begin to take their toll on the family as his grandmother is sent to an asylum and he encounters his mother engaging in a lesbian act. His father pulls him aside, finally admitting that Small’s cancer was a result of his own father’s radiation experimentation in his childhood. At sixteen Small is out making a name for himself as an artist, when a call informs him that his mother is dying. He visits her on her death bed, powerfully resting his hand on hers as a sign of peace.
As the first illness narrative that I have encountered in the form of a graphic novel, I found the illustrations to be particularly gripping. Not only did they really bring to life Small’s tale, especially since he hints at his artistic aspirations in the story, but also because images hold a different kind of power than words. Small’s depiction of his voiceless life was intriguing. I was also fascinated by the intertextuality of the Alice in Wonderland story and the White Rabbit’s guest appearance as a therapist. By coupling powerful language with jarring imagery, Small achieves an evocative graphic novel memoir that moves readers beyond typical limits.
What did the genre of graphic novel bring to this illness narrative?
How might the genre of graphic novel affect the audience of this tale? Under what circumstances might this be a more effective medium than other genres?
What were some moments when images resonated and were more powerful than their linguistic counterparts may have been?
What I find fascinating about the idea of using art to express the illness experience is that it translates the physical and mental components of illness into a visual image. While some illnesses are often visible, others remain invisible. Art has the power to visually illuminate the visible and unveil the invisible.
As I explored artistic depictions of illness, I found that art seemed to be used in three main ways: to encourage another person’s illness experience, to express one’s own illness experience, and to depict the illness experiences of others.
Fiber Arts and Loose Ends includes a series of quilts created as tributes to survivors, an uplifting collection for sufferers. While some are more abstract, including depictions of plants used in cancer treatment, others incorporate language into this artistic medium. Words of Love by Annabel Ebersole incorporated the words “Courage,” “Love,” “Faith,” “Belief in Miracles,” “Hope,” and “Trust.” These encouraging words reminded me of the triumph narrative, but they also embody an optimistic take on the quest narrative.
While art is sometimes turned to for relief and encouragement, it can also be used as a space for self-expression and release. William Utermohlen used art as a form of narrative, to tell the tale of his transformation with Alzheimer’s. His drawings reflect his gradual loss of self and identity through the distortion of his facial features. Incorporated colors seem sporadic (the fourth drawing in particular seems to reflect the chaos narrative), until ultimately Utermohlen has become a faceless black and white charcoal sketch.
In addition to providing support for the ill, art can be used to spread awareness to the well. The Scar Project is a particularly powerful photography collection of breast cancer survivors, especially depicting women who have had mastectomies and are redefining the female body. With the motto “Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon,” these works are a direct resistance against the pink ribbon that has become the face of breast cancer (and is also a form of the triumph narrative). These works also revise the restitution narrative of breast cancer by suggesting that rather than a return to normalcy, breast cancer can result in a redefinition of the female body and female identity.
Just as Frank’s narrative categories often overlap and intertwine elements of illness, art seems to transform and evolve illness, achieving a multiplicity of narratives within a single work of art.